Understanding Food Labelling

Food labels contain a wealth of useful information for consumers, provided they understand what the information conveys and how it can help to build a healthy balanced diet. In the Arab Gulf, the information that appears on food labels is carefully controlled in order to help consumers understand the key attributes of the foods that they are buying.

Updated food labelling legislation was introduced in 2012 and 2013 by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (GSO 2233/2012 and GSO 9/2013), and this was followed in 2013 by legislation to control any nutrition and health claims made in relation to food (GSO 2333/2013).

All packaged food in the Arab Gulf must now provide the same information. Any nutrition or health claims must be consistent, and in line with national nutrition policies. Nutrition labelling beyond that required by law is permitted, however this should be supported by consumer education programmes to help them to understand the information, and what it means to them.

Since the 1930’s, the Kellogg Company has been providing nutrition information on its packaging across the globe above and beyond that required by law.  Outlined below is an overview of this information, what it means and how it can be used to improve the diets of individuals and families living in the Arab Gulf.

Front of Pack Labelling – Reference Intakes (RI)

Reference intakes are useful guidelines based on the approximate amount of nutrients and energy for a healthy, balanced diet each day. Reference intakes (RIs) are not intended as targets, as energy and nutrient requirements are different for all people. But they do give a useful indication of how much energy the average person needs and how a particular nutrient fits into a daily diet.

Unless the label says otherwise, RI values are based on an average-sized woman doing an average amount of physical activity. This is to reduce the risk of people with lower energy requirements eating too much, as well as to provide clear and consistent information on labels. If you are trying to lose weight, your average daily energy requirement will be lower than if you want your weight to remain stable.

Other population groups such as young children will also have lower nutrient requirements, but the RIs on packaging still give a useful guide to how a food contributes to a healthy eating pattern.

As part of a healthy balanced diet, an adult's reference intakes ("RIs") for a day are:

Energy: 8,400 kJ/2,000kcal
 
Total fat: 70g
 
Saturates: 20g
 
Total sugars: 90g

Salt: 6g

 

 

A Quick Guide to Nutrients

Energy is measured as calories (kcal) or joules (kJ). If we eat more energy than we need, then we will gain weight, and if we use more than we eat then we will lose weight. Saturates are also called ‘saturated fat’ or ‘sat fat’ and are known as ‘bad fats’ because of the negative effect that they can have on your cholesterol.
Sugars are a type of carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is the main fuel source for our bodies. Starch is also a type of carbohydrate and should form a substantial part of energy intake. Salt is also called sodium chloride. It can be found in food as well as what we add to food ourselves, so check the RI label to see what is in food. (To convert sodium to salt, multiply the amount of sodium in g by 2.5).
Fat has twice as many calories as carbohydrate or protein. Eating too much can lead to weight gain. We do need some fat in our diet, but we generally eat too much saturated fat (saturates). Fibre has a number of health benefits so try to eat more fibre. More than 3g per 100g is a source of fibre and more than 6g per 100g is high in fibre.

 

On front of pack for many foods and drinks, the quantity for each nutrient is shown as well as a percentage of the reference intake (%RI) for that nutrient, most commonly shown per typical portion.

The example here shows that in a 30g bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes there are 113kcal, equivalent to 6% of the RI for energy, 0.3g fat or less than 1% of the RI for total fat, 0.1g of saturates equivalent to less than 1% of the RI, 2.4g sugars equivalent to 3% of the RI and 0.34g of salt which is equivalent to 6% of the RI for salt.

Reference intake labels are a quick guide to a foods nutrient content. One easy way to use these is to compare two products against each other – allowing the one that has the lowest saturates or salt content etc. to be selected.

Some manufacturers also use specific icons on the front of packaging to highlight particular nutrients contained within that food. In order to do this the food must meet specific criteria for the nutrient that has been highlighted. Examples of icons used by Kellogg’s include:

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that every bowl of cereal is a source of B vitamins (thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), B6, Folic acid and B12) and iron.

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that the cereal is a source of calcium.

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that every bowl of cereal is a source of vitamin D

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that the cereal is a source of fibre providing at least 3g of fibre in every 100g

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that the cereal is high in fibre providing at least 6g of fibre in every 100g

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that the cereal is a source of wholegrain

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that the cereal is a source of both wholegrain and fibre and contains at least 3g of fibre in every 100g

Where this icon appears on a Kellogg cereal pack this indicates that the cereal is low in fat and has no more than 3g of fat in every 100g

 

 

Nutrition labels on the back or side of packaging

Information labels are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of packaging providing information on ingredients, allergens (substances that people might have an adverse reaction to) and nutritional content.

Ingredients list

Under the GSO Regulations packaged foods must show a list of ingredients. Ingredients are given in order of weight, so the main ingredients in the packaged food always come first.

Allergens

Any ingredients used in the product that may cause hypersensitivity in some individuals must also be declared.

List of Allergens which must be declared

Cereals containing gluten (i.e. wheat, barley, oats, rye, spelt and their products)
 
Milk and milk products
Crustacea and their products
Sulphite in concentration of 10 ppm or more
Eggs and egg products
Celery and their products
Fish and fish products
Mustard and their products
Peanuts and their products
Sesame seeds and their products
Soybeans and their products
Clams and their products
Walnuts their products
Lupin and their products

 

Nutrition Declaration

This is most often given in the form of a panel (as shown here) or may be presented as a list. All packaged food must as a minimum show information for energy, protein, carbohydrate, sugars, fat, saturated fat and sodium (or salt).

Additional information may be given regarding other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals where they are present in significant quantities. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and often per portion of the food as well.

Nutrition and Health Claims

The GSO regulations now also legislate for Nutrition and Health Claims made on foods. This is to help ensure that any claim made on a food label in the Arab Gulf is clear, accurate and substantiated. Only products offering genuine health or nutritional benefits are allowed to refer to these on their labels in order to enable consumers to make informed and meaningful choices when it comes to food and drinks. This will allow citizens increased confidence in making healthier lifestyle choices by allowing them to know exactly what they are consuming. In addition, the legislation will help to ensure fair competition between food producers, and will promote and protect innovation in the area of food and health.

A Nutrition or Health Claim means any representation (product name, wording, or image) which states, suggests or implies that a food has particular nutritional properties. This might be in relation to a foods nutrient content or to a function that the food or one of its nutrients might have e.g. wheat bran fibre helps with regularity or calcium helps to build strong bones.

A Nutrient Content Claim is a nutrition claim that describes the level of a nutrient contained in a food. For example: “source of calcium”; “high in fiber and low in fat”. Each nutrient has different set criteria for ‘low’, ‘source of’ and ‘high’. For example, to be a source of a vitamin or mineral the food must contain at least 15% of the Nutrient Reference Value per 100g or in a typical portion. To be a source of fibre the food must contain at least 3g of fibre per 100g and for a ‘high in fibre’ claim at least 6g of fibre per 100g of food.

A Nutrient Comparative Claim is a claim that compares the nutrient levels and/or energy value of two or more foods. For examples: “reduced”; “less than”; “fewer”; “increased”; “more than”. In order to make a comparative claim, the food concerned must be compared to similar foods and must contain a relative difference of at least 25% in the energy value or nutrient content concerned. For example, a lower fat biscuit must contain at least 25% less fat compared to the standard version. The only exception is for vitamins and minerals where a 10% difference in the Nutrient Reference Value is acceptable.

A Health Claim means any representation that states, suggests, or implies that a relationship exists between a food or a constituent of that food and health. Health claims include the following:

Nutrient Function Claims – a nutrition claim that describes the physiological role of the nutrient in growth, development and normal functions of the body. For example, “Calcium is needed for the maintenance of normal bones. Food X is a source of/ high in calcium.”
 
Reduction of Disease Risk Claims mean claims relating the consumption of a food or food constituent, in the context of the total diet, to the reduced risk of developing a disease or health-related condition. For example, “Calcium helps to reduce the loss of bone mineral in post-menopausal women. Low bone mineral density is a risk factor for osteoporotic bone fractures. Food X is a source of calcium.” However it’s important to note that diseases have multiple risk factors and altering one of these risk factors may or may not have a beneficial effect.

 

Under the new Regulations Nutrition and Health claims should be consistent and support national nutrition policy. Health claims should be supported by a sound and sufficient body of scientific evidence to substantiate the claim, provide truthful and non-misleading information to aid consumers in choosing healthful diets and be supported by specific consumer education.